The Aurora bridge loomed above the window of the number 40 bus about a mile away. Cliff rested his head against the bus window and watched it rise higher into the air as they approached it. The Fremont Avenue stop left them only a few blocks away. He could see the open space under the overpass, guarded by the troll and shaded by the span.
“So, your son’s pizza place is up the hill from the bridge?” Cliff asked as the bus rumbled past them back into the flow of the traffic.
“A couple a blocks away.”
“Where does he live?”
“With his friends,” she replied.
“Does he go to school?”
“Nah,” she replied. “He just works at the pizza place. He saves extra slices people don’t eat - sometimes just the leftover crusts and gives them to me when the manager ain’t looking. I take them back to the guys. He also takes the half-empty beers when the customer don’t finish and pours them all together for me. It ain’t much, but enough to get a good hum going.”
“And, you left the girl with him while he’s working?” Cliff asked as he struggled to coordinate his limp with his clumsy use of the crutches.
“The pizza place don’t open for a couple hours,” she said. “He goes in early; sweeps the place, washes the dishes, cleans the bathrooms and makes the garlic knots.”
“In that order?” Cliff asked.
“Ain’t nobody there to ask questions or call the cops,” Winona said. “But we gotta get her out of there before the manger comes in and calls them dirty cops. She could end up in the trunk of a cruiser for all we know.”
“You’re sure these cops are dirty?” Cliff said. “They seem like assholes, but there’s no proof they know anything other than the dented car.”
“If you seen that girl react,” Winona’s face darkened. “You’d know.”
“Ok, then we have to figure out who to call. Some sort of Child Services hotline.”
“Fine, but no cops,” Winona hissed. “Damn criminals; all of them. We don’t want Amaya sold off, walking the streets or dancing at nudie clubs like I did. That ain’t no life for a pretty little girl like her.”
Cliff stumbled along the uneven pavement. Winona continued walking. The crutches pressed against his armpits.
“Keep up Lucky,” Winona called to him. “You’re slowing me down, babe.”
Cliff placed his booted foot gingerly against the asphalt, testing his strength. Satisfied he could apply adequate pressure on his damaged appendage, he tossed the crutches into a ditch along the side of the road and hobbled to catch up with Winona.
“We can get a couple beers when we go get her,” Winona said. “It’ll make that leg feel a lot better than the meds the doc gave you.”
Cliff pictured Doctor Kushnik and the kindness he extended to him.
“They didn’t have to help us,” he said.
“What?” Winona asked. “Who? What are you talking about?”
“Those kids in their car,” he answered. “The doctor. Even that nice man on top of the bridge.”
“What man on the bridge?”
“You ever think about getting it all back?” Cliff asked her.
“Getting what back?” Winona squinted in the morning sun. “What’re you talking about? Maybe we should’a got your head bandaged up too?”
“No,” Cliff sat on a bench along the sidewalk in front of a laundromat. “Ever since I let go of the rail and fell through the air off that bridge, I’ve been thinking about this.”
“I think your brain broke and you ain’t thinking about nothing but nonsense,” Winona said. “Come on, we gotta go get the girl.”
“You’re right, we can’t let this girl fall into a bad life like us,” Cliff said. “But once we help her find her parents, I’m going to make a plan.”
“Fine, dude. Make whatever plans you want. Just get up and let’s go.”
“I’m going to make a plan to get out of this.”
“Out of what?”
“Out of being homeless,” Cliff looked at the bridge. “I’m going to get my life back.”
Winona laughed and sat down on the bench next to him.
“You’re so cute,” she said, placing her hand on his knee. “Make all the plans you want. Nobody gets off the street once they get here.”
The door to the laundromat opened. A short, older man emerged holding a broom and a nasty sneer. Bells jingled. The door rattled on its hinges.
“Get outta here vagrants,” he snapped. “Go shit on someone else’s bench.”
Winona stood and faced him. She flailed her arms outward as if to bluff that she would approach him. The man held up his broom and pointed it at her.
“Take your stink somewhere else,” the man continued. “This is a place of business; a place of cleanliness. Nobody wants you here. You scare away the business and frighten all the children. Get. Go back to the trash hole where you belong.”
Winona continued to face off with the man, staring down both him and his broom. Cliff stood and calmly walked away.
“Damn prick,” Winona fumed. “Thinks he owns the world.”
“No sense causing trouble,” Cliff replied. “He calls the cops. We get beat up. We can’t win.”
“Still,” Winona continued. “I’d a liked to shove that broomstick in his mouth to shut him up; or up his ass where it belong.”
“That’s why it’s time to clean up and get off the streets,” said Cliff.
“Right, that ain’t happening.”
“You don’t think so?” he asked.
“I know so,” Winona answered, pacing in front of him and turning up Fremont Ave. “I been on the street five years. You been homeless for, what, 12? We ain’t going nowhere. Neither of us.”
“I don’t believe that,” Cliff said, as he hobbled in the boot up the hill behind Winona. “I’m going to make a plan and stick to it. I’m going to prove you wrong.”
“Suit yourself, dude,”
“Hey, you should make the plan with me,” he said, stopping in front of a small, brick book store. “We could get out of this together.”
Winona faced him. Sadness peeked through her defiance like a lonely ray of sunlight through dark clouds.
“It ain’t happening,” she snapped. “And don’t go trying to make me hopeful for the future. I ain’t got no future. I’m living meal to meal. And, I only get one of them a day. So, I ain’t got much to live for.”
“What about your son?” Cliff asked.
“My son already has a better life than me,” she snapped. “You don’t know my son. Don’t go bringing him up. Especially, since you ain’t even seen your precious Mindy in 12 years.”
“Rindy,” Cliff corrected her. “And, I’m just saying, if I can survive jumping off the Aurora, maybe it’s a sign that we actually can change and get back to a better way of living.”
Winona quickened her pace up the hill. Cliff struggled to keep up with her. The oversized plastic boot strafed the sidewalk as he lumbered behind her. At an intersection, she stopped to wait for the cars to finish passing. She pointed out the pizza restaurant to Cliff.
“You see that window in the building next to the pizza place?” she asked Cliff as he caught up to her on the corner. “That’s my son’s apartment. You know what they pay in rent?”
Cliff held his hand over his eyes to shield the morning sun.
“A thousand bucks or some like that,” Winona said. “You know how long it take you to make that much money stealing three bucks a day from old ladies?”
“Like a year,” Cliff replied.
“Right,” Winona shook her head in disgust. “And that just gets you one month rent. It’s impossible. We got no place to go cleanup, but the river. We got no skills. Nobody’s giving us a chance. This is it. This is our lives. Like it or not, you can’t piss on destiny or destiny only makes it worse. There’s no way out, no matter how lucky you are. Let’s just drink some beer and forget about this crap.”
Winona scurried across the street and head for the alley between the buildings. Cliff caught up with her and lightly tugged her by the elbow.
“You’re a good person,” he said. “You didn’t have to help me. But you did. When I woke up after jumping off the bridge and realized I was still alive, something happened to me. I’m doing this. I’m going to change my destiny and get out of this.”
“Good luck with that, Lucky,” Winona emphasized Cliff’s nickname for sarcastic effect. “I’ll see you back under the Aurora when you fail. That’s where I’ll be the rest of my damn, miserable life. Now, shut up about this stupid, useless plan and let’s go help this little girl that needs us.”
The bright mid-morning sun shaded the alley between the rustic brick Fortunato’s Pizza and a graffiti-covered cannabis store. Winona’s 15-year-old son, tall, lean and muscular with slicked jet black, wavy hair tucked beneath a mesh hairnet appeared through the back door with a Corona bottle of yellow bubbly liquid. He hugged his mother and glanced menacingly at Cliff.
“Boss’ll be here any minute,” Alex snapped at his mother. “Who’s this loser?”
“Name’s Lucky,” she answered. “He’s hanging out with us under the bridge.”
“You keep your damn hands off my mother or I kill you, old man,” he said, pointing at Cliff. “Me and my guys’ll come, throw you off the top of the bridge, you lay a finger on her. You got me dude?”
“Seriously, Alex?” Winona nudged her son, playfully. “What’re you my father? I’m 30-years old. And, we just met yesterday. Give it a rest.”
Alex glared again at Cliff before kissing his mother on the cheek and opening the door to allow the petite, four-foot tall girl to pass.
“I tried to give her some pepperoni and mushrooms, but she just ate cucumbers from the salad bar,” he said. “Where’s these Child Services people you said you were going to bring here?”
“We’re gonna figure that out,” she said. “Thanks for watching her. We got it from here.”
Amaya ran to Winona and hugged her. As Winona turned her back to guide Amaya to the street, Alex looked Cliff in the eyes and ran his finger menacingly across his throat.
“Nice kid,” Cliff said, rolling his eyes.
“He’s a tough guy,” Winona replied. “You gotta be when you don’t go to school and you live with the dudes he lives with.”
“Who does he live with?” Cliff asked. “The mafia?”
“Pretty much,” Winona replied, sipping the mixture of beers in her Corona bottle and handing it to Cliff.
The sound of a police siren filled the air. Cliff, Winona and Amaya all flinched. The siren grew louder. Amaya clacked her hands over her ears. Cliff watched as red and blue lights passed overhead along the bridge, 50 feet above them.
“We gotta get her out of here,” Winona said. “Let’s hide her under the bridge until we can figure out how to find her parents.”
The Fremont Troll seemed to turn its head. In its place, Cliff saw the visage of the old hag from the train, whose three dollars he had stolen. Its ashen wrinkled face sneered at him and then cackled. Cliff stood frozen in the street, staring at the dead, black eyes of the crippled woman who died the night he robbed her.
“Dude,” Winona called to him as she scurried across the street with the young girl by her side. “You look like you seen a ghost. Snap out of it Lucky!”
Cliff shook the image of the hag out of his head and an idea hit his mind. Winona crossed the street with Amaya and started to tuck her under the brown tarp again.
“I know where to take her,” Cliff said to himself, before projecting across the street to Winona. “I know where we need to go.”
It took considerable explanation and arguing to convince Winona to agree to Cliff’s plan. Normally obstinate like a brick wall to his laid-back passivity, Cliff stood up to Winona and took her by surprise with his conviction.
“Damnit,” he raised his voice. “If you think these two cops have anything to do with this, then this girl’s in danger and it’s only a matter of time until they come back and poke around. You don’t think they’ll look under the tarp next time? We’ve got to take her to the top of the bridge and that’s the end of it. Now, get your ass up that hill and let’s find this little girl someone who can help her.”
The three of them clamored up the hill to a staircase that led to the side of the four-lane throughway that crossed the Aurora bridge. Winona, for the first time since he met her, remained silent, following Cliff’s lead. Cliff winced as he scurried up the hill, but hid the pain in his foot from Winona and Amaya.
“What now genius?” Winona asked as they stood in the shoulder of the road watching the cars and trucks kick sand at them. “You really think we’re safer here than under the bridge?
A truck rumbled past them, kicking pebbles and splaying warm wind into their faces.
“We just have to wait,” Cliff said, looking back and forth. “Just a little longer.”
Winona sat on a small berm adjacent to the breakdown lane. Amaya sat next to her. She shared an Oreo cookie from one of her pockets and Amaya rested her hand on Winona’s kneecap as she ate her snack. They waited. Cliff gazed up and down the four-lane road. To his left, the openness of the expanse below the bridge emptied into a rolling cluster of foothills, dotted with expensive homes. To his right, the road curved around a small tree-covered hill and faded into a more modest neighborhood. Winona glared at him, but waited patiently in a shaded spot with Amaya clinging closely to her side.
After about 20 minutes, Winona stood and guided Amaya back toward the staircase.
“You can hang here til the cops come give you a good beating,” she said. “Nobody’s coming for us. No one cares to help out. We’re going under where it’s safer.”
Cliff sighed. He scanned the sides of the highway again. An ambulance rolled by with its lights flashing, busily on its way toward the medical center.
As it whooshed by, scattering Cliff’s hair across his face, he saw the figure he expected a couple hundred feet away, rounding the hill by the quaint neighborhood at the base of the road. He squinted and confirmed the body shape.
“Winnie,” he called back down the stairs. “Get up here.”
The figure walked toward him. Upon seeing him, he quickened his pace.
“Winona,” Cliff shouted louder. “Get the hell up here. This is your only chance to save her.”
Cliff recognized Kipp Collina, the kind Samaritan who tried to stop him from jumping off the bridge. Kipp didn’t connect Cliff at first, but then his face tightened.
“You’re the one who jumped the other night,” he said, looking down at the boot on his ankle. “I thought you died. I called 911; gave them the whole story. Then I made my way down the hill. But you weren’t there. I couldn’t figure out where you went. How’d you survive with just a cast on your foot?”
“I don’t know man,” Cliff replied. “But I need your help.”
As he said it, Winona and Amaya emerged from the incline, bounding up the stairs. Out of breath, she moved quickly to the top of the concrete steps and hid behind Cliff.
“They’re down there,” she panted.
“Who’s down there?” Kipp asked.
“Hutch and Peters,” she said, moving further out of view past the berm on the side of the road. “We gotta move.”
Winona took Amaya by the hand and guided her along the breakdown lane toward the grove of trees and the neighborhood from which Kipp had come.
“I’m sure the police officers are only there to help,” Kipp said, focusing his gaze on the small girl at Winona’s side. “I’m sorry, and who is this?”
“We gotta get out of here,” Winona peered over her shoulder. “The fat one’s coming up the street. He’ll see us.”
Kipp sized up the unusual trio including haggard, suicidal Cliff, street-worn Winona and the adorable little girl. He looked down the hill at officer Len Hutchinson approaching the troll.
“Listen,” Kipp said, more forcefully. “I don’t know what’s going on here. We should get their attention.”
“Not those police,” Cliff said, taking Kipp’s arm and tugging him out of view at the top of the stairs.
Kipp pulled his arm back forcefully and watched the officers fix their attention on Duff and Jackson, sitting just up from the massive troll sculpture.
“I’m going to need a little better explanation than that,” Kipp said. “I don’t know who you are. The last I saw, you were jumping off the bridge. I’ve seen her with the group by the troll. But you gotta understand, it doesn’t look right seeing you with this little girl.”
“Let’s just get away from those cops and we’ll give you the whole story,” Cliff said. “Promise”
“Tell me what’s going on, now, and I’ll try to help,”
Winona stopped walking along the road, sufficiently past the sightline from below the bridge.
“When Lucky, here jumped off the bridge and hit the top of the car parked under the bridge, the trunk popped open,” she said. “Amaya here was locked in the trunk.”
Kipp’s face clouded in horror at the image of Amaya locked in the dark, confines of a trunk.
“They arrived first and started asking us what we saw.” Winona said adding edge to her voice. “Did we see anything suspicious? Was anybody in the car? How’d they know to ask if we saw anyone get out of the car or the trunk? They gave me the creeps and I don’t trust them. And neither does she. So, excuse me if we don’t look like the types of people that would help out a little girl. But we’re getting her away from those dirty cops with or without your help. Come on Lucky.”
Cliff walked past Kipp and joined Winona in treading along the busy highway in the breakdown lane. Kipp stood at the top of the stairs for a second. The angry voices of the officers badgering Duff and Jackson echoed along the rafters and dissipated against the hum of the highway. Kipp turned and trotted along the road to catch up to Cliff, Winona and Amaya.
“There’s a little path through the woods to my house just up the way,” he said. “You’ll be safe there.”